Confession time: I like to be in control. It’s not an overbearing thing, but my anxiety moves in when I lack options. To maintain control, I crave spreadsheets, numbers, and data. Information leads to choices, and options bring control.
Seven years ago, my wife and I began using the budgeting software, You Need A Budget (affiliate link). Using YNAB taught both of us sound financial practices and provided control over our financial decisions. The software operates on four basic rules. Stick with them and you thrive financially. Veer off the path and things get dicey.
Writers should budget their income just like everyone else, but this is not an article about financial budgeting. Instead, this focuses on using the principles for budgeting money to level up your writing productivity.
For fifteen years, I wrote part-time. I worked 40+ hours a week while managing The Writing Cooperative’s global community and my freelance clients in the evenings. Time was hard to come by, and some weeks were better than others. But, to keep it all going (and to keep my sanity), I strictly budgeted my time.
Taking the lead from YNAB’s four rules for financial freedom, here are my four rules for leveling up your writing productivity:
Rule 1: Schedule your time
YNAB’s first rule is to give every dollar a job. Essentially, assign every bit of income to a planned future expense. Unless you’re Jeff Bezos, your income is finite. Budgeting connects income to expenses based on your priorities.
When it comes to writing, especially if you are writing part-time, your finite resource is time. As much as we might like to have more than 24-hours in a given day, it’s just not possible. Have a full-time job? Need to sleep? Well, at least two-thirds of the day is already gone. And let’s not forget adding family, friends, and relationships to the mix, and your day fills up fast.
To maintain control over your calendar and ensure there is time to write every day, schedule it like any other appointment. Only have 15 to 30 minutes open? Create a calendar event and hold yourself accountable to write.
John Zeratsky, writing for Forge, provides a template for scheduling your entire day. Just as budgeting every dollar enables us to focus on our financial priorities, scheduling our whole day provides freedom of focus. Here’s how John explains it:
When I think proactively about how I want to spend my time — when I separate the planning from the doing — I can throw myself into each moment with joyful abandon and my full attention.John Zertasky in Forge
Once you have time scheduled, hold yourself accountable to the calendar.
The “Seinfeld Strategy” is a habit-building method created by comedian Jerry Seinfeld. The concept is straightforward: put a giant ‘x’ on a calendar every day you accomplish your task. There are many apps built on this strategy, but all you need is a piece of paper. Seeing all those x’s will encourage you to keep going until you’ve developed the habit.
Rule 1 Tasks
- Schedule writing time in your calendar.
- Adhere to your schedule to build consistent habits.
Rule 2: Develop a system
The second rule of YNAB is embracing your true expenses. Once you have every dollar accounted for, look at the bigger picture. There are always unplanned expenses or things that sneak up on you because they only happen once or twice a year. Factoring these items into your priorities requires a diligent system.
The same is true for your writing. It’s one thing to block out time on the calendar and another to use that time well. Spending time well requires a system.
If you’re anything like me, staying on task requires diligent organization. In my working world, I have checklists, schedules, and action plans for everything. In my writing world? Besides having drafts and ideas spread across multiple apps, I had no system until I encountered Danny Forest’s routine and process. It blew my mind.
Danny developed a highly detailed spreadsheet to track his ideas and progress. He created columns for headlines, subheadings, ratings for things like “viral potential” and “vomit factor,” anticipated tags, submission status, and publicity plans. If you’re reading an article on using budgeting principles for writing, chances are you love a good spreadsheet. Danny delivers.
When it comes to budgeting money, having every account in a single location makes the entire process easier. So why distribute your writing ideas all over the place? When I combined all of my random drafts and ideas into a modified version of Danny’s spreadsheet, I discovered over 35 ideas in various states of completeness. Now, they’re all a single location, and I can flesh them out and track their progress.
Besides capturing ideas, Danny adds in aspects of a content calendar as well. Content calendars are popular in social media marketing, so why not use the concept for writing?
Capturing all your ideas in one place and adding a schedule makes the most of your limited writing time. Having an orderly spreadsheet shows you the bigger picture so you can adapt when necessary. But that’s Rule 3, which we’ll get to in a moment.
Rule 2 Tasks
- Develop a system to embrace your entire writing process.
- Find all your distributed ideas and capture them in a single, dedicated location.
Rule 3: Roll with the punches
The third YNAB rule is to roll with the punches. This is a boxing term meaning to adjust your body while taking a punch, so you’re better adapted for the next move.
The best plan is just that, a plan. As much as I’d love all of my goals to come true, that’s just not how life works. Unexpected things happen, and you have to adapt to them. In the budgeting world, this means taking money budgeted for one category and moving it to cover unplanned expenses in another.
As writers, punches come from every direction; computers die, you get sick, the dog needs to go to the vet, a client moves a deadline. These things happen all the time.
Last week my wireless keyboard completely stopped working. It wouldn’t pair with the computer leaving me without any input device. I didn’t have “drive to the store and buy a new keyboard” on my calendar, but these things happen.
Rolling with the punches means dropping the “that’s just how it goes” mentality. Yes, life requires adaptability, but you can either embrace change or let it beat you down. I bought my keyboard and moved on with the day.
Thankfully, rolling with the punch is easy. It means going back to your calendar and making changes. Assigning time to a project or activity does not carve that time in stone. If you need to change it, change it. Yes, it might mean the week is busier than planned, or you work longer than anticipated. Yes, it might mean you have to say no to something else. But that’s ok. Remember, your time is finite, and you can’t do everything.
You are in control of your time, not the other way around.
Rule 3 Tasks
- Schedule a block of time each week for changes, so there is built-in flexibility when the unexpected occurs.
- Develop a positive way to say “no” when you don’t have time to take on extra work.
Rule 4: Age your words
The final YNAB rule is to age your money. Breaking the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle means budgeting money as far in advance as possible. For example, budgeting today’s paycheck for rent two months from now. YNAB shows an “Age of Money” estimation based on how long money remains in your bank account before being spent. The longer money marinates, the better your financial situation.
I love writing hot takes as much as the next writer, but my unresearched and unedited thoughts don’t all need publishing. Aging words isn’t just about avoiding reactionary content (which, sometimes, is necessary and fun). Instead, aging your words is about allowing thoughts to develop and, more importantly, editing.
The first half of Stephen King’s On Writing is some of the best writing advice available. In the book, King discusses the importance of taking a break from your writing:
If you’ve never done it before, you’ll find reading your book over after a six-week layoff to be a strange, often exhilarating experience. It’s yours, you’ll recognize it as yours, even be able to remember what tune was on the stereo when you wrote certain lines, and yet it will also be like reading the work of someone else, a soul-twin, perhaps. This is the way it should be, the reason you waited.Stephen King in On Writing
Not everything you write needs to go into a drawer for six-weeks, but there is value in taking a break from whatever you’re creating. Be it a few hours or a few days, pausing and coming back to your work brings new perspectives.
Trying to edit, review, or publish anything directly after writing is generally not a great idea. You’re too close to the work at that point; everything is still too fresh. Taking time to age your words brings objectivity and perspective, not to mention time for editing.
Everything you submit or publish should go through some form of editing. Be it with a human editor, an app, or your self-reflection, taking time to edit is essential. Not only does it ensure the piece is ready to go, but it also adds a layer of professionalism to your work.
I can usually tell within a few sentences when someone edits a Writing Cooperative submission and when someone does 4not. Submitting something without editing is never a good idea. Not only is it not your best work, but it also says a lot about your writing process.
Granted, even with teams of editors, some errors get through. Have you ever read a first-edition novel and found a typo? It happens. However, aging your words provides the opportunity to catch most errors.
Finding mistakes and seeing places to improve your work is essential for every writer.
Rule 4 Tasks
- When you finish writing, put your content in a drawer (physically or metaphorically) for a while.
- Create a process for editing everything you write.
Budgeting money and writing might seem like completely separate concepts, but they have a lot in common. Scheduling your time, developing a proper system, rolling with the punches, and aging, your words are surefire ways to level-up your writing.
Not only does budgeting improve your productivity, but it also ensures your work is polished and submission-ready. Plus, budgeting, be it your money or your time, is an incredibly empowering experience.